HARARE – Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe has resigned, bringing an end to 37 years of rule and sparking jubilant celebrations in the nation’s streets.
A letter from Mugabe read out by the speaker of parliament said the decision was voluntary and he had made it to allow a smooth transfer of power.
The news abruptly halted an impeachment hearing that had begun against him.
The ruling Zanu-PF party says former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa will succeed Mugabe, in power since 1980.
Mnangagwa’s sacking earlier this month triggered a political crisis.
It had been seen by many as an attempt to clear the way for Grace Mugabe to succeed her husband as leader and riled the military leadership, who stepped in and put Mugabe under house arrest.
After the resignation announcement, lawmakers roared in jubilation.
According to the constitution his successor should be the current vice-president, Phelekezela Mphoko, a supporter of Grace Mugabe.
But Zanu-PF chief whip Lovemore Matuke told Reuters news agency that Mnangagwa would be in office “within 48 hours”.
Speaking from an undisclosed location earlier on Tuesday, Mnangagwa said he had fled abroad two weeks ago when he learned of a plot to kill him.
UK prime minister Theresa May said Mugabe’s resignation “provides Zimbabwe with an opportunity to forge a new path free of the oppression that characterised his rule”.
She said that former colonial power Britain, “as Zimbabwe’s oldest friend”, will do all it can to support free and fair elections and the rebuilding of the Zimbabwean economy.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai told the BBC he hoped that Zimbabwe was on a “new trajectory” that would include free and fair elections. He said Mugabe should be allowed to “go and rest for his last days”.
The US Embassy in Harare, the capital, said it was a “historic moment” and congratulated Zimbabweans who “raised their voices and stated peacefully and clearly that the time for change was overdue”.
He presided over a deepening economic crisis in Zimbabwe, where people are on average 15% poorer now than they were in 1980.
However, Mugabe was not forced out after decades in power by a popular mass movement but rather as a result of political splits within his Zanu-PF party.
The leader of the influential liberation war veterans – former allies of Mugabe – said after the army takeover that Mr Mugabe was a “dictator”, who “as he became old, surrendered his court to a gang of thieves around his wife”.
Both he and Grace, 52, are believed to be at a mansion in Harare.
Mugabe’s decision to finally resign sparked joy in the streets.
“We are just so happy that things are finally going to change,” Togo Ndhlalambi, a hairdresser, told the AFP news agency.
“I am the happiest person under the sun right now, because I always believed that Mugabe was going to step down in my lifetime and it has happened,” human rights activist Linda Masarira told the BBC.
“And now going forward it’s time for the opposition to reorganize and ensure that we will have a government that cares for the people. And everyone has to be included.”